The New England Patriots had the Houston Texans’ number this season. The Patriots played the Texans both in the regular season and in the postseason, and won both games fairly convincingly.
The first win gave them the home-field advantage that they had for Sunday’s game. The second win earned them a berth in the AFC Championship Game, which they will also play at Gillette Stadium next week against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots came into the game very healthy, but ended up being without some key players: tight end Rob Gronkowski left in the first quarter with a season-ending re-injury to his broken forearm, while running back Danny Woodhead also left in the first quarter with a thumb injury and defensive end Chandler Jones did not play in the second half with an ankle injury.
The players who were on the field stepped up, with most Patriots playing a very good game on Sunday. The following slides analyze which Patriots players were best.
The New England Patriots had the Houston Texans’ number this season. The Patriots played the Texans both in the regular season and in the postseason, and won both games fairly convincingly.
Tom Brady was far from perfect Sunday, but led the Patriots to victory.
Tom Brady: A-
Tom Brady’s statistics are a bit deceiving: he had some issues in the second and third quarter with downfield accuracy, and many of his yards came after the catch. Nonetheless, Brady did make some very big downfield throws, and led the Patriots to a crucial playoff victory.
Brady completed 25-of-40 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns, threw no interceptions and had a passer rating of 115. Brady made some outstanding throws over the course of the game, including a perfect throw between double coverage up the left sideline that ended up as a 47-yard gain to Wes Welker, and a ball placed perfectly toward the left pylon for Shane Vereen to catch for a 34-yard touchdown reception.
Brady’s performance left room for improvement, but overall, his play is a big reason why the Patriots are headed to the AFC Championship Game.
Shane Vereen picked a great day for a career game.
Shane Vereen: A+
Had it not been for a Danny Woodhead injury on the Patriots’ first possession, it is unclear whether Shane Vereen would have even had a significant role in their game plan on Sunday. But when Woodhead went down, the Patriots turned to Vereen to play a significant role, and he ended up having the best game yet of his two-year NFL career.
Vereen has flashed the ability to be a big playmaker in his sophomore season, but it all came together for an outstanding performance Sunday night. Vereen was excellent as both a runner and receiver, and he finished the game with a combined 124 yards and three touchdowns.
Vereen’s big plays in the game included an outstanding 34-yard touchdown catch, where he beat single coverage downfield and extended to make a grab going toward the left pylon into the end zone. He also had the Patriots’ second-longest run of the day, a 22-yard gain up the left side.
Stevan Ridley: B+
Stevan Ridley may have been overshadowed by Vereen’s play, but he had a very good day in his own right. While the Patriots used Vereen as a receiver and primarily on outside runs, they turned to Ridley to run between the tackles, and he was very effective on Sunday.
Ridley did a great job following his blockers, ended up with 82 rushing yards and showed great burst on a 23-yard rush through a big hole that was the Patriots’ longest run play of the day. He also used that burst to turn a screen pass into a 13-yard gain to convert a 2nd-and-12 in the first quarter.
Danny Woodhead: N/A
Danny Woodhead was stopped at the line of scrimmage on his first run of the game. He injured his thumb on the play, and never returned.
Wes Welker was the Patriots' leading gainer on Sunday.
Wes Welker: A
Wes Welker certainly made his case for a long-term contract extension with a great performance on Sunday. Aside from one not-so-rare drop that would have converted a 3rd-and-8 and instead forced a punt, Welker was absolutely terrific on Sunday.
Welker made huge plays throughout the game, but the second quarter was when he made his biggest impact. He took a short pass for a 30-yard gain with great open-field running, then later made an outstanding play in beating Kareem Jackson up the left sideline with physicality, making a catch in stride and then outrunning safety help to the sideline on a 47-yard gain.
Overall, Welker finished his day with eight receptions for 131 yards, making him the leading gainer of yards from scrimmage on the day for the Patriots.
Brandon Lloyd: C+
It would usually be expected that Brandon Lloyd would be the Patriots’ deep threat and Wes Welker would be the short-yardage receiver, but in a sense, their roles were reversed on Sunday. Lloyd made five catches, including a 5-yard touchdown off a screen pass and an important 8-yard catch to convert a late fourth-quarter third-down, but none of his receptions gained more than eight yards.
Lloyd’s grade drops mostly, however, as a result of a horrible mental error he made in the second quarter. After Brady short-hopped a pass over the middle to Lloyd on one of his worst throws of the day, Lloyd picked up the ball and threw it at the official, picking up a 15-yard penalty and helping the Texans to stall what could have been a touchdown drive, instead leaving the Patriots to settle for a field goal.
Deion Branch: C-
Deion Branch, the New England Patriots’ No. 3 wide receiver, finished the day without a single reception.
Aaron Hernandez filled the void opened by Rob Gronkowski's injury Sunday.
Rob Gronkowski: N/A
Unfortunately for the Patriots, the excitement over tight end Rob Gronkowski’s return to health didn’t last long on Sunday.
On his first target of the day in the first quarter, Gronkowski made a diving effort for a pass along the right sideline, and landed on his previously broken left forearm. As a result, he re-injured his forearm, and will have to have season-ending surgery, as reported by Pro Football Talk.
Aaron Hernandez: A
While Rob Gronkowski didn’t end up staying healthy for long on Sunday, Aaron Hernandez made it clear that he is back to being fully healthy. Hernandez was a big downfield playmaker for the Patriots on Sunday, catching six passes for 85 yards.
Where Hernandez showed he was truly back to 100 percent came in the third quarter, when Hernandez got open for a catch approximately 15 yards downfield, then showed off his speed and quickness making moves in the open field en route to a 40-yard gain, which set up an 8-yard rushing touchdown by Stevan Ridley just two plays later.
Michael Hoomanawanui: B+
Michael Hoomanawanui was not targeted once as a pass receiver on Sunday, but he was his usual self as a run-blocker.
Hoomanawanui made some very nice lead blocks in the ground game on Sunday, most notably by picking up a linebacker up the middle on Stevan Ridley’s 8-yard rushing touchdown and by leading the way with a great seal block on the left side on Shane Vereen’s 22-yard run.
Logan Mankins made the AP's second-team All-Pro look very valid on Sunday.
Logan Mankins: A+
Logan Mankins truthfully didn’t have a season worthy of second-team All-Pro recognition, but the left guard certainly played like an All-Pro on Sunday. Mankins battled injuries for most of the season, but it was clear that he is fully healthy on the postseason on Sunday, as he had a dominant performance.
Whether it was driving back a defender straight ahead or using his feet to pick up defenders as a pull blocker, Mankins was outstanding leading the power running game on Sunday. He also did a very effective job as a pass protector, giving up very little pressure even against a very active and athletic Texans defensive front seven.
Nate Solder: A-
The Patriots ran the ball up the left side often on Sunday, and that wasn’t just because of Mankins. Left tackle Nate Solder also had a very good day leading the power running game, both on the left side of the line and picking up blocks in the open field.
Solder also had a very solid day in pass protection, only giving up significant pressure on a few occasions and allowing no sacks. Considering he was matched up against J.J. Watt at times, a few misses can be excused on an otherwise very good day for Solder.
Ryan Wendell: C
Center Ryan Wendell struggled the most in pass protection among the Patriots’ five offensive linemen on Sunday. He was one of two Patriots beaten by Watt on the Texans’ only sack, and allowed pressure up the middle to come in and hit Brady on multiple other occasions as well.
Wendell had a solid day leading the power run game up the middle, but he was the weak link of the Patriots’ offensive line in this contest.
Dan Connolly: B
Right guard Dan Connolly had his share of struggles in pass protection on Sunday as well, giving up pressure against Tom Brady on occasions to both defensive ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith.
He had a strong showing, however, as a lead run blocker. The Patriots ran up the right guard hole often, and that was a result of Connolly doing a very solid job opening holes and holding off inside penetration.
Sebastian Vollmer: B+
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was beaten on multiple occasions in pass protection by Watt, including when he was the initial blocker beat on Watt’s 9-yard sack, the Texans’ only sack of the day. The fact that the Patriots only gave up one sack, however, is a credit to Vollmer, who did a good job in pass protection for the most part even with a list of matchups that included Watt, Antonio Smith and Brooks Reed.
Vollmer had a very solid day as a run blocker as well, and more than held his own against a tough matchup for an overall very strong day for the Patriots’ offensive line.
Rob Ninkovich was the Patriots' big-play defender again on Sunday.
Rob Ninkovich: A+
Rob Ninkovich came up big for the New England Patriots many times this season, and Sunday was no exception.
Ninkovich made two of the game’s biggest plays, with an interception for the game’s only takeaway, and by recovering an onside kick that the Patriots nearly let the Texans pull off successfully.
He was also the only Patriot to have any significant success rushing the passer, hit the quarterback on multiple occasions and had two tackles for loss, one of which did not count on the stat sheet but came through a holding penalty committed by the player blocking him.
Vince Wilfork: B+
Against one of the NFL’s elite running backs in Arian Foster, nose tackle Vince Wilfork led a very solid run-stopping effort. Wilfork did a good job shutting down the run up the middle, forcing many runs outside by holding up the middle while also getting in on five tackles.
Wilfork did not do much as a pass-rusher in this game, but as a run defender, he did his job plenty effectively.
Brandon Deaderick: B-
Brandon Deaderick didn’t have a great performance on Sunday. He was unable to bring significant pressure up the middle, and while the starting defensive tackle had a decent day stopping the run, he did not make a big impact, finishing the day with just one tackle.
Chandler Jones: C
Defensive end Chandler Jones, who missed time during the regular season with an ankle injury, suffered a setback Sunday when he injured his ankle again, and missed the entire second half as a result. When he was in the game, he was not particularly effective.
Jones made one impressive open-field tackle more than 10 yards downfield by tracking down Arian Foster in the open field. Other than that, however, he did not make much impact as either as a run-stopper or pass-rusher, and the question now becomes whether Jones will be back again in this postseason.
Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported that Jones did not have a walking boot on when he left the locker room postgame, but did walk with a noticeable limp.
Justin Francis: B
When Jones left the game, Justin Francis took his place in the lineup. Francis had more success than Jones did at bringing pressure into the backfield, bringing heat both off the edge and on inside rushes on multiple occasions which forced incomplete passer or throws into covered screens.
Francis didn’t make a big impact as a run-stopper when in the game, finishing with just one tackle, but he did a good job filling in for Jones overall.
Kyle Love: C-
Kyle Love played limited snaps at defensive tackle Sunday, but made very little impact. He was in on a key 3rd-and-1 stop at the end of the third quarter, but had very little penetration through the line when he was in the game.
Trevor Scott: C-
Trevor Scott played rotationally as a pass-rusher in this game, but brought very little pressure against the quarterback. He made a stop on Arian Foster in goal-to-go defense in the fourth quarter, but his overall impact in this game was very small.
Jermaine Cunningham: D
Jermaine Cunningham did not play in the Patriots’ regular-season matchup with the Houston Texans, but he might as well not have played in this game either. He did not receive many snaps in this game, and when he did get on the field, he made virtually no impact.
Jerod Mayo made plays for the Patriots on Sunday.
Jerod Mayo: A-
Outside linebacker Jerod Mayo had a very productive game on the Patriots’ defense Sunday. Mayo made a number of big tackles around the line of scrimmage, including two tackles for loss, and also forced a fumble that did not count—but probably should have—as a result of questionable forward progress call.
Mayo came up huge late in the game, coming up with one of his two TFL by stopping a screen pass immediately, and he was also in on a stop on a screen pass from the 1-yard line on 3rd-and-goal one play before the Texans ultimately scored their final touchdown of the game. His only real weak point of the game was in pass coverage, where he was beaten over the middle on multiple occasions.
Dont’a Hightower: B
Dont’a Hightower did not make a great deal of plays in this game, but made two big-impact plays for his defense.
In the second quarter, he read a screen pass to the right side perfectly, and shut it down immediately for a 2-yard tackle for loss. In the fourth quarter, he forced a turnover on downs when he hit Matt Schaub on a fourth-down passing attempt, forcing an incompletion.
He finished the game credited with three tackles.
Brandon Spikes: B
Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was not a huge difference-maker on Sunday, but he consistently made tackles he was in position to make, effectively doing his job.
Spikes did make a couple of big run stops at the line of scrimmage, and did a very good job on one play of dropping into coverage then laying a hard shot on Texans tight end Owen Daniels as he caught a pass one yard short of converting a 2nd-and-7.
He finished the game with six total tackles, and also had the game’s most humorous moment with a funny dance celebrating a forced fumble that did not even count.
Aqib Talib gave up some catches Sunday, but made solid tackles.
Aqib Talib: A-
Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib had a very tough task on Sunday, as he spent most of the game matched up in one-on-one coverage with Andre Johnson, one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers. Johnson made some plays, but overall, Aqib Talib more than held his own.
Even when Talib gave up completions, he immediately made a tackle every time, finishing the game with team-leading figures of 10 total tackles and nine solo tackles. A good amount of tackles came in run defense as well, as Talib had a good day both in pass coverage and in run support.
He did not have any blown coverages or give up easy completions, and he did make a very nice pass breakup on a screen pass intended for Johnson in the first quarter.
Alfonzo Dennard: B-
Alfonzo Dennard didn’t have a bad game opposite Talib at cornerback, but the Patriots may need him to play better next week against the Baltimore Ravens. Dennard was beaten on multiple crossing routes, and was also beaten up the right sideline by DeVier Posey on a 25-yard touchdown pass, the Texans’ second-longest gain of the day.
Dennard had a solid day in run defense, and defended a key 3rd-and-goal screen pass perfectly at the 1-yard line, but he wasn’t at his best in pass coverage in this contest.
Kyle Arrington: C-
Against an offense that uses multiple tight end sets much more often than three-receiver sets, Kyle Arrington did not play as much as usual as the Patriots’ slot cornerback on Sunday. When he did play, he didn’t make much impact, and he also gave up a 22-yard reception over the middle to Andre Johnson in the third quarter.
Devin McCourty: B
Back at free safety with the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks back in the lineup, Devin McCourty did not make any big plays in this game but did his job effectively. McCourty did not give up any big plays over the middle, and among his eight tackles, most of them came in clean-up duty on the back end.
McCourty even had to perform clean-up duty on the opening kickoff of the game, when he hustled to track down Danieal Manning at the 12-yard line after a 94-yard kickoff return.
Steve Gregory: C
Strong safety Steve Gregory had a very up-and-down day on Sunday. He was very inconsistent in both pass coverage and tackling.
Gregory made some very nice plays in pass defense, including swatting down a pass from behind Owen Daniels in the second quarter. On the other hand, he was also beaten in pass coverage far too often in this game, and gave up some big gains over the middle.
Gregory tied Talib for the team lead with 10 total tackles, and made a very big 3rd-and-12 stop by up-ending Daniels off a short pass, but he also missed a few tackles. Additionally, Gregory incurred a 15-yard penalty in the fourth quarter by launching into a defenseless receiver.
Tavon Wilson: B+
Tavon Wilson was on the field much more than Kyle Arrington as the Patriots’ fifth defensive back in this game, and the rookie safety stepped up well. He forced multiple incomplete passes with great pass coverage against Owen Daniels, and he also made three sound tackles.
Patrick Chung: D
While Wes Welker made a case in this game for the Patriots putting up the money to re-sign him, safety Patrick Chung certainly did not. Chung barely played on defense, and mishandled an onside kick which nearly gave the Texans an opportunity to recover their own kick and keep the game alive late in the fourth quarter.
Tackling is not Stephen Gostkowski's strong suit.
Stephen Gostkowski: C
In terms of kicking, Stephen Gostkowski had a pretty good day. He made both of his field goal attempts from 37 and 38 yards out, and three of his eight kickoffs went for touchbacks. His grade actually drops for something a kicker does not usually have to do: tackle.
Gostkowski made it pretty clear today that as the last line of defense, he needs some serious work as a tackler. Gostkowski missed tackles on two kickoff returns that went for 69 yards or more, and on another tackle that he made on a 35-yard return, he gave the Texans 15 extra yards with a horse-collar tackle penalty.
The kickoff returns weren’t Gostkowski’s fault, but rather a complete failure by the kickoff coverage unit, but his poor tackling efforts did not help matters.
Zoltan Mesko: A+
The kickoff game may have been a failure on Sunday, but punter Zoltan Mesko had an absolutely outstanding day.
Four of Mesko’s five punts went for 50 or more yards, three of which were downed at or inside the 20-yard line. Overall, he finished with outstanding averages of 52.8 yards per punt and 49.4 net yards per punt.
Marquice Cole: A-
It was a very poor day overall for the Patriots in terms of kick coverage, but one player who had a very good day in that area was Marquice Cole. Cole led the Patriots with three special teams tackles on Sunday, two of which came inside the 20-yard line on a kickoff and on a punt.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are going back to the AFC Championship Game again.
Coaching Staff: B+
The Patriots had to know they were going to get a tougher test from the Houston Texans on Sunday than they did in the regular season, and they responded well to the challenge. The Texans did give the Patriots a much-tougher game, but the Patriots still won the game fairly comfortably, holding a 25-point lead early in the fourth quarter that eventually ended up at 13.
The Patriots’ only major game plan fail came from Josh McDaniels’ offense late in the second quarter, when a disastrous offensive possession with just 1:15 on the clock left the Patriots without a first down, did not force the Texans to use any timeouts and gave the Texans time to get in position to kick a field goal.
Overall, the Patriots’ coaching staff had their team well-prepared for their opponent on Sunday, and overcame some serious injury concerns: over the course of the game, the Patriots lost three key players to game-ending injuries in tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Danny Woodhead and defensive end Chandler Jones.